The hearing where nothing was heard

Loren Martell

The hearing

I did not want to go to the public hearing on the closing of old Central High. I did not desire another battle with our school board. Something larger than self-interest can sometimes dictate our actions, however. Ghost soldiers invaded my being and forced me to leave my house. I HAD to go.

I’d planned to only focus on the public’s right to vote, when taxpayer’s money is involved, but the grievances of the other two men who planned to speak were so salient and compelling, I wanted to rewrite my speech.

The two men were teachers in the district’s AEO (Academic Excellence Online) program, housed in old Central. Their concerns about the relocation of the program, after the sale of the building, reminded me of a conversation I’d had years ago with teachers in Nettleton Elementary. Those teachers complained to me that decisions had once been made from bottom-to-top, with full input from the teaching staff, but the major decision being made with the Red Plan was a being mandated from top-to-bottom.

The teachers waiting with me in old Central’s gymnasium told me the district’s online high school program was one of the best in the state, and that any investment should be focused on positioning the program BETTER into the future. 

The current plan had them exiting old Central in about five months, and they said they still had absolutely no idea where they were going.  The district plans to start leasing space for the program somewhere in the center of the city. Where? Who knew?

Wherever it ends up being, leasing property will not set our school district up well, into the future. This plan will do nothing for education, nothing to position our school district better in the educational marketplace.  

This plan is a continuation of a very dumb idea. It doesn’t correct the mistakes of the Red Plan. It doesn’t lessen the east-west divide predictably made worse by the huge boondoggle. It only deepens the educational void the uber-expensive investment predictably created in the center of a city 30 miles long. This terrible plan makes that educational void worse, and will force Duluth to eventually build new central schools.    

The catch phrases used to sell this extension to the Red Plan contained the exact same language used in the original hustle: We’re spending millions to save the taxpayers money; we’re rightsizing our school district; We’re following a path that will set us up for the next fifty years with a once-in-a-generation opportunity.  

Anyone who thinks this plan sets ISD 709 up for 50 years should go to the nearest clinic and get some head x-rays. You will likely discover your noggin is filled with some substance on the order of stones or dried beans, capable of producing a maracas-mimicking sound. 

Before they discuss this project again, I’ve heard rumors school board members intend to treat us all to a maracas concert, by nodding their heads in rhythmic unison across the dais.

The lobbyist

Jeff Anderson – a former DFL city councilor and currently a lobbyist with a firm called the Costin Group – was the “facilitator” for the hearing.  Anderson helped to hustle this whole scheme through the state legislature. 

He started off by giving his own prowess at finessing the system a nod: “As part of the SUCCESSFUL legislation in October 2020, the district must seek public comment on the sale of this building and share proposed plans.  This (rigged process) then allows the district (to continue down the tracks with its railroad job) and submit plans to the Dept. of Education. (The Project Manager contract has already been approved and signed,) but the Board is (still very) interested on hearing the community position on the topic of the proposed (already effectively pre-decided) sale of Central.”

This is what is passing for democracy in all of this: With the aid of its able lobbyist, the district laid down some tracks and set up some stations along the tracks. 

With the Board along for the ride, the plan is to pause briefly at each station, check off a bureaucratic box, then roar the railroad job onward at top speed. During this stop, everyone waited at the station while three speakers rattled on for three minutes. 

Then another box was checked and the train roared on.  

Three left in the dust

Summoned from the gymnasium one person at a time, the teachers going ahead of me, we were led through back passages. We entered the boardroom through a door in the rear wall, and the experience felt like walking into an indoctrination chamber in the old Soviet state. 

Powerful officials were sitting in a circle, all wearing masks, waiting for each troublesome infidel to step up to the podium and expose his false beliefs.

The first two speakers, being teachers, were very passionate about their concerns, but more gently diplomatic than me with their public warnings and reprimands.  

The first teacher’s name was Hamil-ton Smith. He told the board he was in favor of selling old Central, but that he was also “definitely concerned about the preservation of the programs inside, (with) the plan moving forward…”  

He said he and his colleagues were proud of the work they’ve been doing with the online program and pointed out that the program had recently received recognition for “the highest standard of online education within the state.”  

He added that he hoped this fact was “kept in mind” when the program was relocated.  

“I think we’re a valuable tool,” Smith added, continuing to press his case. 

He said a lot of other school districts have been trying to start online pro-grams, since the advent of COVID-19, but ISD 709 is “already there…already recognized as being very high on the list.”  
Hamilton pointed out the online program’s great potential for growth, something ISD 709 desperately needs, in light of the Red Plan’s enrollment failure.

“We’re already branching out to school districts outside of our own, and I think we can definitely do more of that, and do more to service kids that are already here.”  

Success, of course, breeds success. It naturally follows that the more the district does to make the program successful, the more enrollment in the program will burgeon. Hamilton was clearly worried the district’s current plan would produce the opposite result. He ended his speech by looking around at the decision-makers and saying: “I would love to just have a dialogue with you.”

The second teacher’s name was Chris Vold. He is the current coordinator of the AEO program and the Dean of Students for the district’s Area Learning Center. Vold told the board he was speaking “on behalf of our team from the Area Learning Center and the Academic Excellence Online school.”  

He’d practiced his speech and found it to run 25 seconds past three minutes, but expressed hope his “25 years of service will give me 25 (extra) seconds.”

Vold launched into his concerns, and I’m going to give him some space, because his remarks were so pertinent to the long-term survival of our public school system.  

“I’m here today,” this earnest teacher told our school board, “because (since) the sale of this building, back in October, these two schools (AEO and ALC, both housed in old Central,) are still without a site or a plan. I want you to know that the original draft of (my) speech contained a list of frustrations and criticisms of the original planning and the ongoing planning process thus far, and how we weren’t part of that…However, I’m not here to complain about the past. I’d rather spend my time turning our attention to what we should be doing to improve programming for our students in the future.”  

Obviously blessed with the forgiving, reasonable nature embedded in the DNA of most teachers, Vold acknowledged that “our world has been turned upside-down this year by the pandemic (and) I understand there are a great many things our administration has to deal with in a constantly-changing priority list. I know we are trying to get students and staff back into the classroom as safely and effectively as we can.”

For readers who don’t know, Aca-demic Excellence Online and the Ar-ea Learning Center both operate as separate high schools in ISD 709. Vold acknowledged that East High and Den-feld High have larger enrollments, and “a lot of energy must be spent on those student and staff populations to get them back to operating at full strength, but…“

From this “but,” Vold dug into the core of his complaint, pointing out that the district was only “about two months away from vacating (old Central,) which houses two other Duluth high schools, and we’re still no closer to any programming decisions for those (two) schools, than we were five months ago, when we learned this building was sold. Can you imagine if we were six months away from moving East or Denfeld, and we had no idea what that would look like?”  

He added that he’d sent an email “back in early December,” making the case that a site had to be found for this programming soon.  

“Well, the clock is still ticking, and we haven’t started that plan yet.”  

The reason this conversation is so important, especially in regard to the AEO program, is because COVID-19 accelerated a trend already in place: Online education is going to increasingly compete with brick-and-mortar buildings in the educational marketplace.

Vold ardently made the case that families are “now looking for safer learning environments (and) more flexible schedules” and that ISD 709 “should take notice and focus on ways to expand online options. We (the AEO staff) have the experience, the capability and the reputation with the Minnesota Dept. of Education to create programming that will rival any (other) option in the state. If we advertised this (programming,) it could be an investment to retain our students, but also (attract) additional families (from) outside the district, looking for opportunities their districts don’t offer…However, in order to move forward, we need to be heard, and we need a site that is worthy of our students and staff.”  

COVID-19 has been used as a scapegoat for ISD 709’s enrollment problems, but there were 10,772 students when Keith Dixon stormed into town, promising brand-new “21st century schools” would be an enrollment magnet. The last official number, from last October, was 8,073 – a 25% loss. 

Our school board approved (and is now extending) a plan that ran up a bill of more than half a billion dollars, and our school district went backward in the educational marketplace.

Obviously ISD 709 has to do better long-range strategic planning, and online education has to be part of that. Instead of positioning the programming for growth, so the district can finally get competitive somewhere in the marketplace, our board is going to shove its online high school into some rented space, while it spends millions more of our tax money on a new bus barn and administration building.  

My turn

When the first teacher who spoke – Mr. Hamilton – came back to the gymnasium after he was finished, he said: “I don’t know why I felt so nervous speaking to other adults.”  

It requires a lot of pluck to speak publicly; that’s why so few people do it. I’ve done it many times and still sometimes get nervous. The primary reason for my nervousness is due to the fact that I invariably find myself stepping on the toes of the town’s power players.    

I’d told the two teachers I was considering staging a protest during the hearing, an idea they both advised against. I didn’t really want to protest, especially after watching our cities burn and the insurrection in the Capital on Jan. 6. I felt so strongly that Duluth citizens were being railroaded again, however, that I – or the ghost soldiers inside me – wanted to throw some grit onto the railroad tracks. 

Keith Dixon set up a false dichotomy from the moment he stepped into Duluth – a self-immolating attitude that continues to cling on in our school district: that the needs and desires of our school district are opposed to the needs and desires of the public, making it impossible to earn true public buy-in with a vote.

This is what I said from the podium: “What you are in reality doing here is extending, wrapping up, the Red Plan.  With this additional expenditure, you will have now run the total bill for that facilities investment to well over half a billion dollars – $520 million, plus, with bond interest – and the good people of Duluth have had no vote on any of it. One of the modern icons of the Democrat party – Elizah Cummings – once declared that voting is the essence of democracy, and of course it is. And if you steal away the essence of democracy, you do not have democracy. All you’re left with is government manipulation and party politics.”  

Vigorously, I tilted at the windmill: “During the Senate Impeachment Trial last month, one of the house Democrat managers declared: ‘In America, our voice is our vote.’ Well, I have no voice in this room. For well over a decade I’ve tried very hard to have a voice, but once again I have no representation for what I care about, especially my concern for the public’s right to vote.  The system is set up to work only for the ruling DFL/union political machine and its constituents. No one else. And if the system does not work for you as a citizen, what do you do? I think the only thing you can do is step outside the system. So I’m prepared to go to jail to protest another unfair, undemocratic and unwise action taken by the Board of Education of Duluth public schools.”  

I’m in a high-risk demographic group and was not immunized. Jails have been hot spots for COVID-19, and I knew I was putting myself in real danger. The hearing was shut down and I wasn't arrested, but I was willing to run the risk of a viral infection and another beating from the town’s establishment, if my protest woke anybody in Duluth up to what an ill-considered railroad job this all is again.